Magazine article American Forests

Building Leopold's Legacy

Magazine article American Forests

Building Leopold's Legacy

Article excerpt



Pines celebrated in a conservation classic have outlived the author and conservationist. As they age, they shape his legacy in a different way.

On the surface, an orange slash gives a simple order: Cut this tree and leave all that are unmarked. To a lover of trees, painting an orange slash on any tree, especially a 60-year-old pine planted by Aldo Leopold and his family during weekends at "the Shack," may seem like a blasphemer's shout in a cathedral.

In 1935 Leopold purchased 80 acres of land along the Wisconsin River near Baraboo; it became the core of the Leopold Memorial Reserve after his death. When he arrived, the land was a "worn-out sand farm"-overgrazed, separated from its topsoil during the Dust Bowl years, and then abandoned.

Leopold established a more respectful relationship with the land. He and his family turned a dilapidated chicken coop into "the Shack" by adding a new fireplace, tacking a small addition on the side, and putting in windows scavenged from a junkyard. The Leopolds regularly came up from Madison for weekend visits and hunting camps that were a "retreat from too much modernity."

Leopold's family and students also joined him in some of the first experiments in ecological restoration. Several acres were revegetated with sod and seeds from remnants of the tall grass prairie, while acres planted to pine started holding down the droughty, wind-ravaged soils.

The pines, celebrated in A Sand County Almanac, have outlived Leopold by 58 years now, and the trees stand high above the heads of his descendants-his surviving children Nina, Carl, and Estella, succeeding generations, and hundreds of foresters and wildlife biologists. The pines, which gave courage to the professor during the long winter of World War II, have stood through the first winter snows, while neighboring stands of tall yellow prairie grass bend under the white cloak of winter.

To a trained forester, the orange harvest markings on the Leopold pines look like a doctor's prescription against illnesses that could threaten the venerable trees. Many of the pines, particularly the red pines, show signs of over-competition, including poor canopy development and an extremely low annual growth rate.

In 2003 Dan Pubanz, then a consulting forester with Clark Forestry, concluded that many of the red pines were at a critical stage, stressed by intense competition for sunlight, water, and soil nutrients. An insect attack or drought, he warned, could kill a large number of them. He proposed a careful thinning that could lead to a slow but steady improvement in tree health.

Reconciling differences of opinion about how best to manage land is often portrayed as a giveand-take struggle between idealists and pragmatists. The decision to thin the Leopold pines was very much a process integrating different but not necessarily contradictory values: respecting the symbolic importance of the pines while actively managing the forest due to concerns about forest health and the trees' longevity.

The effort to find a balance was as often a personal process as it was a group one. Carl Leopold, professor emeritus of botany, plant pathology specialist, and Aldo Leopold's youngest son, perhaps best exemplifies the struggle.

Professionally, Carl Leopold understood the risk that disease poses to the pines, yet, when Aldo Leopold Foundation ecologist Steve Swenson described the proposal to thin the trees, Carl responded, "Well, alternatively, we could not cut any trees." After all, those were trees he had planted as a boy in the 1930s and 1940s.

A plan for thinning the pines eventually received the blessing of the Leopold children, partly out of concern for forest health and partly due to how the trees will be used. The logged trees will serve as the primary source of wood for posts, beams, and trusses for a planned Aldo Leopold Legacy Center, which is scheduled to be built this year. …

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